No. 5 Iowa and freshman Caitlin Clark put the nation on notice with a blistering first-half showing in an 86-72 win over No. 4 Kentucky in the second round of the River Walk Region. It sets up the anticipated matchup of Clark and freshman Paige Bueckers in the Sweet Sixteen if No. 1 seed Connecticut can handle its business in the nightcap.
Clark outscored the entire Kentucky roster in the first half, flirted with a triple-double and closed with a 2021 tournament-best 35 points.
Clark outscores Kentucky in first half
Iowa jumped out to a 11-0 lead in a track meet of a first quarter that Clark controlled in every facet. The Hawkeyes involved every player on the court and kept Kentucky looking befuddled as they sunk 3-pointers and moved the ball around. The Iowa defense smothered the Wildcats in the paint and doubled them up on the boards early.
Iowa's 23-11 lead through one quarter grew to 49-22 at the half. Clark put up more points than the Wildcats roster with 24 alongside five rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block.
Everything was falling for Clark even when physics made it appear improbable.
Her first-half stat line was reached only 79 times this season over the span of a full game. Clark, a second-team All-American, had five of them, per Her Hoop Stats. Iowa played as a well-oiled machine shooting 60.6 percent overall and 7-of-10 from 3-point range. Clark created and completed most of those deep opportunities and was 6-for-8 from range.
Kentucky junior Rhyne Howard, up for national player of the year awards, barely had any looks and made one of eight buckets by halftime. It was Kentucky's largest deficit of the season and proved too much to come back from.
Clark nears triple-double
Clark was a few rebounds and assists away from the tournament's first triple-double since Sabrina Ionescu put up her second career one in 2019. The Iowa star had seven rebounds, six assists, one steal and one block. She shot 13-for-21 overall and 6-for-12 from 3-point range.
"This was a shooter's gym," Clark said on the ESPN broadcast. "I kind of had a feeling I was going to shoot well."
"I just came out, my shot was feeling nice and I just kept going from there."
Her final stat line was the first of such numbers in the Big Ten since Minnesota Lynx great Lindsay Whalen in 2001 for Minnesota, per ESPN. It's the 12th time this season she's hit 30 points, which leads Division I, and the fifth time she's reached 35 points, also a Division I-best. It eclipsed the 2021 tournament high of 33 points by Iowa State's Ashley Joens on Monday.
But it was a full team effort as the Hawkeyes were 57.4 percent from the floor and 52.6 percent (10-for-19) from 3-point range. Monika Czinano, who finished off a few beautiful Clark passes, had 14 points, eight rebounds and one assist.
Kentucky couldn't capitalize on 13 steals and was already in too deep of a hole for Howard, who had seven points in the first half, to dig them out. She finished with 28 points, five rebounds, eight assists and six steals.
Clark vs. Bueckers a possibility in Sweet Sixteen
The River Walk bracket was circled as soon as it came out for the potential matchup between star freshmen.
Clark led Division I in scoring this season with more than 26 points per game. Bueckers, the heralded No. 1 recruit in the class, led UConn to a No. 1 Associated Press ranking for the back half of the season and a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Connecticut will have to get through No. 8 seed Syracuse first. The two freshman are friends and highly competitive, so watch out for what Bueckers brings to the second round. That game is at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
More from Yahoo Sports: